Researchers evidently think mothers are significantly more important than fathers. Perhaps I should be flattered, but I'm not. I'm annoyed at the amount of blame that gets explicitly and implicitly put on mothers and I'm annoyed at the way fathers are dismissed as insignificant influences on their children's lives.
In a post last week, I mentioned a study called Maternal Employment, Work Schedules, and Children's Body Mass Index by Taryn W. Morrissey, Rachel E. Dunifon and Ariel Kalil that was published in the Journal of Child Development. The study found that: "an increase in the total time a mother is employed is associated with an increase in her child’s BMI; additionally, the association between maternal employment and children’s weight is much stronger at 6th grade relative to younger ages". While the author has been quoted in several news articles as saying that the study is not intended to make mothers feel guilty and stated that "this is not a maternal employment issue; this is a family balance issue" (as reported by CTV), the data and analysis is very focused on maternal employment.
All of the data in the study looks specifically at the mother, the nature and duration of her employment, and its impact on the children's BMI. In addition to the data focusing entirely on mothers, the study also hypothesizes about possible reasons for the findings that focus entirely on the mother, e.g.:
Mothers who work nonstandard hours may not be available during key times in children’s days when they are not in school, including the weekends, late afternoons, dinnertime, the postdinner hours, bedtime, and wake time. These are times during which important family routines are typically performed (family meals, organized activities, bedtime routines, and physical activity). Given mothers’ traditional role as primary caregivers and managers of children’s time (Bianchi, 2000), it is possible that nonstandard schedules hinder mothers’ abilities to plan and supervise their children’s activities during these key times. This, in turn, could have implications for children’s BMI through children’s physical activity and TV time, suggesting particular impacts on children when mothers work nonstandard schedules as compared to mothers working standard schedules.
All of this is plausible, of course, but leaves me wanting to ask "who is caring for these children?" It is entirely possible that while these mothers are at work, that their children are in the care of their lazy fathers who are lounging around on the couch eating a bag of chips and passing on bad habits to their children instead of being actively engaged with their children and preparing nutritious meals for them. I'm not saying that is the case (because we do not know and the fact that we do not know is half of the problem). However, if we are going to place blame, perhaps we should put it on the person who is caring for the children while the mother is at work (father, babysitter, after school program, grandparent, etc.), rather than simply blaming the mother for being absent.
The study at least recognizes this gaping hole in part by saying that it "examined children's BMI in relation to their mothers' work status and schedules, but the role that fathers' work plays in children's physical health remains unexplored."
This is not the only study to do this. I have read numerous studies on various aspects of child development (sleep, discipline, etc.) that look exclusively at maternal characteristics and behaviours and their impact on child outcomes. These studies either:
- specifically seek out families where the mother is the primary caregiver and draw broad conclusions from the data that they then apply to the general population (where the mother is not always the primary caregiver); or,
- look at a broad range of families but still focus exclusively on the mother under an assumption that the father somehow doesn't matter.
A lot of these studies seem to rely, at least in part, on data that is collected through broad statistical surveys of the population. In some cases, when I've e-mailed the researchers, they have stated that they would have liked to have looked at the fathers too, but that the data simply wasn't available. In other cases, the researchers didn't seem to have a great interest in looking at the fathers.
I'd like to see a shift in child development research -- one that gives dads some of the credit and some of the blame -- or that at least realizes that in two parent homes there are, theoretically, at least two adults involved in raising the children. Of course that would only be the tip of the iceberg -- recognizing that there are single parent families, same sex parent families, families with more than two parents, and so on would really throw a wrench into the desire to put everyone into a nice neat box.
Image credit: Adapted from photo by Muffet on flickr